BRET STEPHENS: Trump and the annihilation of shame
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The New York Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.
I had never heard of Charles Van Doren until, in college, I saw the movie “Quiz Show,” and I probably never thought of him again until I read his obituary this week in The Times. Van Doren, if you didn’t know, was the polished scion of a distinguished American literary family, who in the 1950s was a champion contestant on the NBC show “Twenty-One,” dazzling millions of viewers with what looked like preternatural erudition.
But the show had been rigged, the contestants coached, their fates determined by the need of the producers to manufacture drama and maintain ratings. When the truth came out, America was scandalized and Van Doren nearly ruined.
“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years,” he told a congressional committee in 1959, after finally coming clean about what he had done (along with other contestants). He spent the remainder of his 93 years living a decidedly quiet and unblemished life.
Had Van Doren come along a few decades later, there would have been no big scandal in fabricating reality and no great shame in participating in it. The lines between fame and infamy would have blurred, and both could be monetized. Personal disgrace might have been explained away as a form of victimization by a greedy corporation, an unloving parent, systemic social forces — or with the claim, possibly true, that nearly everybody does it.
The contrast between then and now is worth pondering in the Age of Trump — an age whose signature feature isn’t populism or nationalism or any other –ism widely attached to the president. It’s the attempted annihilation of shame. Shame is neither sin nor folly. It’s what people are supposed to feel in the commission, recollection or exposure of sin and folly.
In days bygone, the prescribed method for avoiding shame was behaving well. Or, if it couldn’t be avoided, feeling deep remorse and performing some sort of penance.
By contrast, the Trumpian method for avoiding shame is not giving a damn. Spurious bone-spur draft deferment? Shrug. Fraudulent business and charitable practices? Snigger. Outrageous personal invective? Sneer. Inhumane treatment of children at the border? Snarl.
Hush-money payoffs to a porn-star and centerfold mistresses? Stud!
The annihilation of shame requires two things. First, nerve: Whatever else might be said about Trump, it takes immense brass to lie as frequently and flagrantly as he does without apparently triggering any kind of internal emotional crisis. Ordinary mortals tend to blush when caught out in some kind of mischief. Trump smirks.
But it also takes public acquiescence. Van Doren might have succeeded in quickly burying his shame if the revelation of his cheating hadn’t led to tidal waves of dismay and disdain. The United States of the 1950s wasn’t yet the land of premature exoneration. A half-century after the scandal, when Van Doren finally wrote about his experiences in an essay for The New Yorker, he confessed, “It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on ‘Twenty-One’ is still part of me.”
Will the cheaters of today — think of Jussie Smollett or Felicity Huffman — feel the same kind of self-reproach in 10 or 20 years? Hard to say, though I doubt it. Smollett, who was accused of staging a hate crime against himself, expressed no contrition after all the charges against him were curiously dropped and his court file sealed. Huffman did better by pleading guilty in the college-admissions cheating scandal, and will surely have to lay low for a while. But a comeback story — polished, perhaps, by a teary TV confessional and a tastefully publicized journey of self-discovery — surely awaits her, and maybe Smollett, too.
It was once the useful role of conservatives to resist these sorts of trends — to stand athwart declining moral standards, yelling Stop. They lost whatever right they had to play that role when they got behind Trump, not only acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness but also savoring its fruits. Among them: Never being beholden to what they said or wrote yesterday. Never holding themselves to the standards they demand of others. Never having to say they are sorry.
Trump-supporting conservatives — the self-aware ones, at least — justify this bargain as a price worth paying in order to wage ideological combat against the hypostatized evil left. In fact it only makes them enablers in the degraded culture they once deplored. What Chicago prosecutor Kim Foxx is to Smollett, they are to Trump.
Not everyone has to succumb to this culture. In his New Yorker essay, Van Doren revealed that in the early 1990s he was offered $100,000 by the makers of “Quiz Show” to serve as a “guarantee of [the film’s] truthfulness.” Van Doren admits he was tempted, but at the urging of his wife he turned the money down. Even after more than 30 years of suffering and contrition, he chose not to profit from a dishonorable deed.
Van Doren died redeemed. Rest in peace.